Organizations that provide free legal services to people with financial difficulty have created a helpline to provide legal advice on issues that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agencies, the Access to Justice Commission, Kentucky Legal Aid, Legal Aid Society, Legal Aid of the Bluegrass and AppalRed Legal Aid, created the COVID-19 Legal Helpline to reach people facing civil issues, such as evictions, problems receiving unemployment payments and other benefits and medical issues or problems with Medicaid and Medicare.

The helpline will connect callers with attorneys who can provide legal advice or the phone, or connect a caller with an aid office for a meeting with an attorney. All of the legal services, including in-person representation, are free to people who qualify.

The helpline will provide assistance on a number of civil issues, including wage garnishment, domestic violence orders and protective orders, child custody and tax issues.

Sara Hayes, pro bono director for Kentucky Legal Aid, said people who qualify for free legal assistance don’t know it, or don’t know how legal assistance could benefit them.

“Representation by an attorney is the most important factor of success when you’re facing a legal problem,” Hayes said. “But it’s the one thing that’s impossible to obtain if you’re financially suffering.”

The pandemic has greatly increased the number of people who are financially eligible for legal assistance through the agencies because people have lost jobs or had their wages cut.

Eligibility is based on a person’s “current situation” and not on how much they made prior to the pandemic, Hayes said.

“Those are absolutely the people who need help right now,” Hayes said.

Potentially, there are a number of ways the helpline can assist people. For example, the helpline can connect a caller with free representation in eviction or housing proceedings, can stop wage garnishment and work with creditors on a client’s debts, can help a person obtain a domestic violence order and can represent a client in divorce, child custody and visitation proceedings.

“There are so many more (people) with the financial crisis that are eligible now” for assistance, Hayes said.

People who call the helpline will be scheduled to talk to an intake person, usually within a few minutes, during regular business hours. At intake, a person will be screened for eligibility and the intake person will gather information about their legal situation, and then connect them with a legal aid attorney from the caller’s region.

The attorney will be able to provide legal advice over the phone. If in-person help is needed, the caller will be connected with an attorney from a legal aid office in their region for assistance and possible representation.

The attorney will address all of a person’s legal issues. Usually, for people who are struggling financially, there is more than one issue, Hayes said. For example, a problem obtaining unemployment benefits also affects other issues, such as housing and child support.

“All of those have to be addressed to provide long-term stability to the client,” Hayes said.

In a press release, the agencies behind the helpline said “70% of low-income Americans have at least one unmet civil legal need but may not seek assistance because they do not think their issues can be resolved through the justice system or with the help of an attorney.”

Hayes said anyone who is unsure if they need legal help, or if they qualify for assistance, should call and consult with an attorney, for free.

“If you are in a place where you are struggling, and you’re facing something insurmountable, call, because you may be surprised what solutions are out there,” Hayes said. “We have experience doing this … we are good at talking to you, determining what there is and finding a legal solution.”

Since the service is free, people who aren’t sure they qualify should call the helpline, Hayes said.

“All it takes is a phone call to find out,” Hayes said.

The COVID-19 Legal Aid Helpline can be reached at 833-540-0342. For more information on the free services provided, visit www.KYCovidLegalHelp.org.

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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